Questions and struggles over the abuse of religious authority are nothing new. Daniel went to the lion's den and the three worthies into the furnace over this issue. Countless numbers of Christians were thrown to the lions in the heyday of the Roman Empire. Such is the history of Gods people in relation to religious authority and its abuse.

This conflict has been complicated by the fact that proper respect for authority is part of the Gospel message. Paul said that even worldly governments are ordained of God (Rom 13:1). The word of God declares that Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam 15:23). Our Lord taught that every child of God is to render respect where it is due (Matt 22:21). The Christian is committed to obey this principle.

The very clarity of these Biblical instructions has created numberless conflicts. In every age Gods people have wrestled with the problem. While desiring to respect religious authority, they could do so only at the expense of their conscience. Authority versus conscience has been a perpetual problem. 


(1) The cross of our Lord is history's prime example of conflict with established religious authority. Our Lord stood resolute. The price was His life.

(2) The apostles: All, except John, died violent deaths because of abused authority. Peter said that we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).

(3) The Reformers: Our church has always admired the men who lived in freedom regardless of cost. We have held out the Waldenses, Huss, Jerome, Wycliff, and Luther as role models of Christian dedication. They all agonized over the question of religious authority.

(4) Two thousand years of Jewish history is tragic proof that blind trust in leadership can bring calamity. History reveals an ongoing struggle between a proper yielding to religious authority and resisting its abuse.

Adventists have always taken a position that authority is to be respected, but never unconditionally. No church, either Catholic or Protestant, has the right to force the conscience. The fact that we have kept the Sabbath contrary to the practice of the body of Christendom is obvious proof of our dedication to this principle. A free conscience under God is an authority greater than that of any man or church. 


That the Catholic Church abused its authority to the point of persecution is a matter of historical record. Protestants have not been immune from such a practice. Autocratic authority split the church in the Reformation. We must not forget this historic fact. Could Adventist leadership, in a time of internal religious crisis, abuse its authority? Could our laity begin to challenge what they feel is unjustifiable use of elective office? Many believe it can happen and possibly will happen. Could Adventism adopt its own version of church infallibility?

The following collection of quotations from the pen of Ellen White leave little doubt that we are in danger.  She did not warn against nonexistent conditions and possibilities. Abuse of authority has always resulted in the spilling of innocent blood. 


The spirit of domination is extending to the presidents of our conferences. If man is sanguine of his own powers and seeks to exercise dominion over his brethren, feeling that he is invested with authority to make his will the ruling power, the best and only safe course is to remove him, lest great harm be done and he lose his own soul and imperil the souls of others. All ye are brethren. This disposition to lord it over Gods heritage will cause a reaction unless these men change their course. Those in authority should manifest the spirit of Christ . . A mans position does not make him one jot or tittle greater in the sight of God; it is character alone that God values . . Satan exults, for he has inspired them with his attributes. They are following in the track of Romanism. Testimonies to Ministers, 362.

The doctrine that God has committed to the church the right to control the conscience, and to define and punish heresy is one of the most deeply rooted of papal errors. Great Controversy, 293.

God has appointed no man to be conscience for his fellowman. It is not wise to lay so much responsibility upon an officer that he will feel that he is forced to become a dictator . . For years there has been a growing tendency for men placed in positions of responsibility to lord it over Gods heritage . . I had to bear my testimony of warning against it because souls were being led to look to man for wisdom instead of looking to God . . And now the same message has again been given me, more definite and decisive, because there has been a deeper offense to the Spirit of God.‑ Testimonies to Ministers, 477-478. 


The question of religious freedom needs to be clearly comprehended by our people in more ways than one. With outstretched arms men are seeking to steady the ark, and the anger of the Lord is kindled against them, because they think that their position entitles them to say what the Lords servants shall do and what they shall not so . . Every man has an individuality of his own, which is to be submerged in any other human being . . Men are under Gods control, not under the control of weak, erring human beings. They are to be left free to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Upward Look, 227. 


Because a man carries responsibilities in the church, he is not given liberty to rule the mind and judgment of others with whom the Lord is working . . Position does not make the man . .Position does not give liberty to exercise power arbitrarily over others. It is counsel that is needed; righteousness in the deportment that is to be made manifest with meekness and humbleness of mind, and a spirit to seek the Lord until He is found. Testimonies to Ministers, 363. 


The fact that one does not in all things conform to our personal ideas or opinions will not justify us in forbidding him to labor for God. Christ is the Great Teacher; we are not to judge or to command, but in humility each is to sit at the feet of Jesus, and learn of Him . . How careful we should be lest we discourage one of Gods light bearers, and thus intercept the rays that He would have shine to the world! Desire of Ages, 438. 


The higher classes (leadership) were to think, decide, enjoy, and rule; the lower were to obey and serve. Religion, like all things else, was a matter of authority. The people were expected to believe and practice as their superiors directed. The right of man to think and act for himself was wholly unrecognized . . Christ was establishing a kingdom based on different principles. He called men, not to authority, but to service, the strong to bear the infirmities of the weak. Power, position, talent, education, placed their possessor under the greater obligation to serve his fellows. Desire of Ages, 550. 


Every man has an individuality of his own, which is not to be submerged in  any other human being. The life of each one must be hid with Christ in God. Men are under Gods control, not under the control of weak, erring human beings. They are to be left free to be guided by the Holy Spirit, not by the fitful perverse spirit of unsanctified men. Upward Look, 227.

In matters of conscience the soul must be left untrammeled. No one is to control another's mind, to judge for another, or to prescribe his duty. God gives to every soul freedom to think, and to follow his own convictions. Every one of us shall give account of himself to God. No one has a right to merge his own individuality in that of another. In all matters where principle is involved, let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind (Rom 14:12, 5). In Christ's kingdom there is no lordly oppression, no compulsion of manner. Desire of Ages, 550-551.

With earnest solemnity the Speaker (Christ) declared: The church is made of many minds, each of whom has an individuality. I gave My life in order that men and women, by divine grace, might blend in revealing a perfect pattern of My character, while at the same time retaining their individuality. No one has the right to destroy or submerge the individuality of any other human mind,  by uttering words of criticism and faultfinding and condemnation. Upward Look, 216 


The voice of the General Conference has been represented as an authority to be heeded as the voice of the Holy Spirit. But when members of the General Conference Committee become entangled in business affairs and financial perplexities, the sacred elevated character of their work is to a great degree lost. The temple of God becomes a place of merchandise, and the ministers of Gods house as commercial business men (General Conference Bulletin 1901, 76)



Under the showers of the latter rain, the inventions of man, the human machinery, will at times be swept away, the boundary of mans authority will be as broken reeds, and the Holy Spirit will speak through the living, human agent, with convincing power.2 Selected Messages, 58-59. 


But the Holy Spirit has been insulted, and light has been rejected. Is it possible for those who for years have been so blinded to see? . . There are men who will soon evidence which banner they are standing under, the banner of  the Prince of life or the banner of the prince of darkness. Testimonies to Ministers, 393. 


Oh, why will men be hindrances, when they might be helps? Why will they block the wheels when they might push with marked success? Why will they rob their own soul of good and deprive others of the blessing that might come through them. These rejecters of light will remain barren deserts, where no refreshing, healing waters flow, and their ministrations as barren of moisture as were the hills of Gilboa. Testimonies to Ministers, 413. 


I must speak to my brethren nigh and afar off. I cannot hold my peace. They are not working on correct principles. Those who stand in responsible positions must not feel that their position of importance makes them men of infallible judgment . . The Lord has not placed  any one of His human agencies under the dictation and control of those who are themselves but erring mortals. He has not placed upon men the power to say, You shall do this, and you shall do that. Testimonies to Ministers, 493. 


If doubts and unbelief are cherished, the faithful ministers will be removed from the people who think they know so much. If thou hadst known, said Christ, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. Testimonies to Ministers, 410. 


If the cords are drawn much tighter, if the rules are much finer, if men continue to bind their fellow-labors closer to the commandments of men, many will be stirred by the Spirit of God to break every shackle and assert their liberty in Christ Jesus. Review and Herald, July 23, 1895. 


That night I dreamed I was in Battle Creek looking out from the side glass at the door, and saw a company marching up to the house, two and two. They looked stern and determined. I knew them well. I turned to open the parlor door to receive them, but thought I would look again. The scene was changed. The company now presented the appearance of a Catholic procession. One bore in his hand a cross, another a reed. As they approached, the one carrying a reed made a circle around the house, saying three times: This house is proscribed. The goods must be confiscated. They have spoken against our holy order. Terror seized me, and I ran through the house, out of the north door, and found myself in the midst of a company, some of whom I knew but I dared not speak a word to them for fear of being betrayed. I tried to seek a retired spot where I might weep and pray without meeting eager, inquisitive eyes wherever I turned. I repeated frequently: If I could only understand this. If they will tell me what I have said or what I have done. I wept and prayed much as I saw our goods confiscated. I tried to read sympathy or pity for me in the looks of those around me, and marked the countenances of several who I thought would speak to me and comfort me if they did not fear that they would be observed by others . . (politics?)

I have seen the fulfillment of this dream. At Battle Creek we met reports which had no foundation in truth .  I was filled with grief as I listened to a charge from a fellow labor whom I had respected . . We found a strong, accusing spirit against us . . We met distrust and positive coldness instead of welcome and encouragement . . They have cast censure upon me, as though I were to blame for their being in trial. Those who thus censured me were entirely ignorant of what they were talking about. I protest against persons sitting as inquisitors upon my course of action.1 Testimonies, 578, 580, 585.  


Who can now feel sure that they are safe in respecting the voice of the General Conference Association? If the people in our churches understood the management of the men who walk in the light of the sparks of their own kindling, would they respect their decisions? I answer, No, not for a moment. I have been shown that the people at large do not know the heart of the work is being diseased at Battle Creek. Many of the people are in a lethargic, listless, apathetic condition, and assent to plans which they do not understand. Special Testimony to Review and Herald Office in Battle Creek, 1896.

It is not in the order of God that a few men should manage the great interests throughout the field. Many of the men who have acted as counselors in board and council meetings need to be weeded out. Other men should take their places; for their voice is not the voice of God . . These men are no more called Israel, but supplanters. They have worked themselves so long instead of being worded by the Holy Spirit, that they know not what spirit impels them to action. Letter to Elder O.A. Tate, 8?27/96. 


 There is no doubt that these counsels must be interpreted as to time, place and condition. However, there are eternal principles undergirding these quotations that stand unchangeable. These guidelines are needed more today than at any time in our past history. We must take care. We may ignore these counsels to our own peril. May God guide us in this crucial time. Amen and Amen.

It is exceedingly difficult to secure an honest hearing for any criticism of authority. Established beliefs are well nigh invulnerable because they are accorded infallibility by the masses who are educated to believe that they will be damned for thinking few people will tolerated opposition of any kind to anything they have been educated to believe. People who have their thinking done for them are always intolerant. J.H. Tilden, M.D.